Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in the new Showtime series "Masters of Sex." (AP Photo/Showtime, Craig Blankenhorn)
“Sexual intercourse began/ in 1963/ (which was rather late for me)/ Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP" goes a famous little ditty by Philip Larkin. Maybe in Merrie Olde England. But a better argument can be made that sex was invented in 1966. The milestone was the publication of a book by two scientists. Two married scientists. Two married scientists whose research involved watching people have sex in laboratories—and then describing precisely what gave people pleasure, and how women could more efficiently do unto themselves, and couples unto one another.
How big a deal was William Masters and Virginia Johnson’s Human Sexual Response—and the 1970 followup Human Sexual Inadequacy? Well, early in 1973, when the Vietnam War ended and hundreds of prisoners of wars were repatriated from Hanoi, the Today show devoted its entire two-hour program to what a POW Rip van Winkle who went to war in 1965 and returned in 1973 would have missed: from feminism (“They walked in picket lines, they badgered congressmen, they formed pressure groups”) to the “federal legislation [that] brought the vote to 2 million more blacks,” to the serial assassinations of politicians and civil rights leaders—and, getting pride of place with all of that: Masters and Johnson. Yes, the invention of oral contraception in 1960 made it possible to women to have sex absent the consequence of pregnancy. But only to have sex. For women to demand sex as something to be enjoyed—that was Masters and Johnson’s veritable invention, and thank the Goddess for that.
I loved Thomas Maier’s dual biography of the couple Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of Wiliam Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love when it came out in 2009. I’m thrilled that Showtime has now turned the book into a miniseries. Tonight is the second episode, and in an interesting marketing strategy, you can watch the entire premier from last week on YouTube. (Viewer discretion is advised!) I loved the Maier book so much, in fact, that for the volume I’m finishing now on the politics and culture of America in the years between 1973 and 1976, I made it a priority to convey his most important theme—how profoundly his subjects changed what sex could and should mean in the contemporary world, and how much that in turn changed expectations about the balance between such fundamental issues as liberty and duty, pleasure and sacrifice, in people’s everyday lives—a real historical shift, and one that we are still reckoning with all the time.